Between Shades of Gray Symbols and Motifs

Ruta Sepetys

Between Shades of Gray

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Between Shades of Gray Symbols and Motifs

The Color Gray 

The title of the book is “between shades of gray,” and these “shades of gray” can refer to several things.  The first is Lina’s mother’s gray coat, into which she has sewn “jewelry, papers, silver, and other valuables” (31) in preparation for the family’s escape from Soviet-occupied Lithuania.  Unfortunately, the family is arrested before they can escape, and the valuables sewn in the lining of the coat become, instead, Lina’s mother’s bargaining chips over the course of their journey to Siberia, which she uses to bribe an NKVD officer to keep her son with her and to pay “rent” in the hovel they are assigned at the beet farm where they are first placed.

“Shades of gray” also refers to the grayness of the lives of those who have been deported.  Lina’s father’s face is “gray” (60) the last time she sees him and the gray has “crept beneath skin” (192), their food is gray, their homes are gray, their clothes are gray, and the sky is gray.  The days spent in the Arctic during the polar night are gray.  The lack of color in their lives is literal and metaphorical—symbolic of the lack of sustenance and joy, which has been replaced by brutality and starvation.

Finally, the “shades of gray” also refer to moral understanding that nothing is all bad or all good—there are always shades of gray just when we would like things to be “black and white”, or morally straightforward.  Sepetys shows this by associating gray with positive things in Lina’s life—her memory of a beautiful gray dress she bought with her mother or the watercolor paint Lina is able to make from ashes.  It is also the color of the man who wound his watch’s hair who, along with Elena, is one of the calm and kind leaders of their group.  Gray is the color of the coat that, with its valuables sewn in the lining, no doubt saves their lives.  Though gray is mostly associated with bad things—with the horror of imprisonment, torture, starvation, and attempted genocide—it is not exclusively associated with the…

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